A lost opportunity

This summer, an article in the Washington Post by Adas Israel Congregation’s Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, entitled “I’m an American Rabbi: Israel no Longer Recognizes My Religious Authority” and subtitled “Fundamentalists in Israel are Shunning Open-minded Jews from the Rest of the World” caused me sadness for its public airing of a major conflict within the Jewish community.

First I felt a sense of a privacy violation akin to an intra-family dispute, replete with divisive and even bitter issues that should be kept behind closed doors, being brought to the attention of neighbors or other tangentially interested parties. But upon further reflection, I put aside the hackneyed worry of “what will the goyim think?”

I considered that some issues and actions within a particular community are of interest to and merit exposure in the larger world. For instance, a prominent Catholic theologian writing on the church’s abuse issues in the Post may very well have benefited the conversation and rectification process within the Catholic community. So regardless of where he might choose to publish, I can welcome Steinlauf’s bringing his personal point of view as a respected Conservative rabbi to the complex and contentious controversy of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s attempts to control, from its haredi Orthodox perspective, matters such as marriage, conversion and praying at the Kotel.

I can accept his own upset and in no way wish to invalidate his emotions. I am also Conservative-affiliated and have similar concerns about the Israel rabbinate’s behavior, including its blacklisting of 160 diaspora rabbis.

I wondered if by publishing his article in the Post, Steinlauf thought a public airing might embarrass the rabbinate and even the Israeli government enough so they might reconsider their decisions. Might he have felt that he would reach more Jews this way to mobilize others to action? Did he hope that his personal expression of disaffection on a national stage might provide helpful catharsis for those feeling similarly?

After taking these possibilities into account, I realized that what troubled me most was the generalized negative portrait of Jews and Israel that Post readers would carry away from the article. Steinlauf, in a binary fashion, dramatizes the clash between the Chief Rabbinate and what he calls “progressive” Jewry by using a broad brush that does little to explain the particulars of the clash, and instead damages the overall reality of Judaism being pluralistic and tarnishes Israel’s image.

I was unsettled by the seething anger suffusing a piece that showed Jew pitted against Jew. Through a bitter and almost traumatic-sounding recollection of an unpleasant experience he suffered when he was 19 at the hands of one haredi Orthodox rabbi who in Jerusalem “kidnapped” him — Steinlauf acknowledges that he wanted to be kidnapped — to a Sabbath-eve lunch of cholent and a tirade against Jewish sinfulness and modernity, Steinlauf pivots to current abuses of the rabbinate and that body’s repudiation of himself and “all progressive minded Jews.”

Despite the reality that today we Jews are a complex people with a wide continuum of religious beliefs and healthy pluralism, including the Orthodox, a naïve reader might conclude that there are “good” Jews such as Steinlauf associated with social justice and modernity and there are unstable and threatening Jews such as the “kidnapper” of his past tied to the haredi Orthodox rabbinate and Israel. So that the reader cannot possibly miss this point, the article shows a haredi man casting a large shadow on the Kotel.

Thus, an everyday Post reader, particularly one who is non-Jewish and liberal, coming across the article at the very time the Temple Mount controversy was exploding would have an immediate association of Israeli Jews with rank, darkly medieval fundamentalism that in our relativistic world is no different from the madrassa-induced Islamic fanaticism that is being waged across the globe.

Besides his castigation of the rabbinate, Steinlauf also indicts Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the controversial and heatedly debated decision within Israel to rescind pluralistic prayer services at the Wall. Right or not, the charge may be an intended supplement to Steinlauf’s complaints against the rabbinate, but for some reason, he seems compelled to proclaim, “When I believe that Israel’s policies are immoral, I say so publicly.” Thus, the rabbinate and Israel itself are conflated as one dark, menacing entity.

With Israel’s legitimacy under attack, with Jewish youth on campuses throughout the country and Western Europe reeling from assaults on their Jewish identity and temerity to support Israel, I sadly digested Steinlauf’s sense of injury as rebounding to injure those within our community who most need his protection. The Post only weeks before had run a scurrilous series labeled “50 Years of Occupation,” in which examples of Israel’s imputed immorality were heaped one upon another. While many pushed back strongly against the Post’s biased agenda, I wondered why would one of our leaders reacting to an intra-familial dispute give public cover to the slanders and sharpen the reaction of some of the Post’s “progressive” readers against Israel?

With his learned insights and ardor in battling against the rabbinate’s stranglehold on our family’s religious adjudications, Steinlauf may have lost an opportunity to take a more constructive tack by writing a piece that broadens our collective understanding of the conflicting perspectives so that we may better participate in dialogue and enhance the possibility of effectively working together. For instance, our youth probably do not comprehend why David Ben-Gurion, a secular Jew, pushed strongly to establish the role of the Chief Rabbinate. What forces have kept this status quo agreement in place since Israel’s founding? What means of communication exist between the rabbinate and Jewish religious leaders outside of Israel?

Do secular Israelis experience the same contentiousness with the rabbinate, and if not, what are the implications? And critically, based on all of us working from a more shared context, what are the better approaches to effect change?

Saul Golubcow lives in Potomac.

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